Chinglish Theatre Review – Chinglish Brings Celebratory Cheer to Orange County

Daniel (Alex Moggridge) introduces us to "chinglish" (photo by Kevin Berne)

(Costa Mesa, CA) February, 2013 – “To Take Notice of Safe: The Slippery Are Very Crafty.” “Don’t Forget to Carry Your Thing.” “Tender Fragrant Grass, How Hardhearted to Trample Them.” The previously listed quotes are not poorly-constructed haikus written by a college freshman during one of his/her many explorations into the joys (and tragedies) of alcohol. These are, in fact, actual public signs that are displayed in China. Commonly known as “chinglish,” this embarrassing trend where English signs are poorly translated into Mandarin has been a source of amusement for tourists and a source of disgust for the Chinese people and its tourism industry. Although the usual cause of these mistranslations has been commonly due to carelessness and poor knowledge of the English language, could it also indirectly symbolize the lack of simple understanding between the western and Chinese cultures? What exactly gets “lost in the translation”? Tony award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang explores the issues of language barriers and misunderstandings in his hilarious and insightful comedy, Chinglish, which is a welcome addition to South Coast Repertory’s 2012-2013 Season.  

Minister Cai (Raymond Ma) discusses with Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec) regarding Daniel's proposal (photo by Ben Horak)

Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge) is a well-intentioned guy. All he wants to do is to resurrect his family sign company after it was left in incapable hands for many years. But he has a brilliant idea:  to work in collaboration with China, where their own public signs are abused by these “chinglish” mistranslations. With the help of teacher-turned-consultant Peter (Brian Nishii), Daniel manages to pique the interest of Chinese Minister Cai (Raymond Ma) and his vice minister Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec). However, as time progresses, Daniel discovers a number of lessons about the Chinese culture. The first? Always bring your own translator that you can trust. The second most important lesson? When it comes to love, there is no simple, universal definition.    

Daniel (Alex Moggridge) shares with Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec) about his dreams (photo by Henri DiRocco)

Out of all the creative facets that this brilliant play possesses, the true star of Chinglish is its creator, David Henry Hwang. His ear for sharp dialogue and his insight into the complexity that each of his characters possesses has been consistently filled with emotional power and meticulous care throughout all of his plays, most notably in M. Butterfly and The Golden Child (which premiered at SCR almost 20 years ago). With Chinglish, Hwang’s talent for natural dialogue impressively evolves in phenomenal ways: twenty-five percent of the script is in Mandarin (courtesy of the incredible translating talents of Candace Mui Ngam Chong). And the actors’ fluency and eloquence of the adapted dialogue is a feat to behold, as well as their group chemistry on stage. As the two leads in the production, Moggridge and Krusiec possess that necessary romantic and especially comedic chemistry which beautifully drives the smooth pacing of the play without it being rushed. Their enjoyment with each other during their scenes is evident; they are having fun during their comedic and tender moments. Moggridge’s Daniel is a typical naïve “boy next door” who combines likability with a humble sense of determination to save his family business and redeem his checkered professional past. And when he gains insight into the Chinese culture’s view on what love really is, Moggridge masterfully shows Daniel’s increased professional wisdom. Krusiec’s portrayal of Xi Yan is a true force to behold as she expertly peels each layer of her character with precision and delicacy. Krusiec initial icy-cold corporate executive is slowly transformed into a person filled with dry humor and wit, which is eventually changed to that of a vulnerable woman who is trapped in a marriage filled with contradictions and complications. This emotional amalgam that Krusiec conjures is magical and her comic timing and choreography with Moggridge highlight the best moments of Chinglish.

Bing (Austin Ku, right) mocks Peter (Brian Nishii, left) while Cai (Raymond Ma, center) looks on (photo by Henri DiRocco)

Equally remarkable are the supporting performances by Ma’s Cai and Nichii’s Peter. Film and television veteran Ma humorously plays the patriarchal Minister who hates the modern Chinese acrobats in favor of more traditional Chinese operas. But that humor hides a poignant sadness in how the society that he loves seems to change without his control. Nichii deftly conveys Peter’s passion and love for the Chinese culture, but adds a sense of immature naiveté when he discovers his own sense of professional worth. And the remaining cast members---Vivian Chu, Austin Ku, and especially Celeste Den---wonderfully demonstrate their diverse talents as they portray multiple roles. Combining this superb acting along with the fantastic technical aspects of this production (including Leigh Silverman’s fluidic direction, David Korins' ever-transformable set design, and especially Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan’s non-intrusive and creatively placed projection design for the English subtitles during the Mandarin dialogue segments), Chinglish is a pleasurable insight into Chinese culture and “mis”-communication.  

Chinglish opened January 25 and runs to February 24, 2013

South Coast Repertory: Segerstrom Stage

655 Town Center Drive,

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197

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